Uzbeks approve changes that could extend president till 2040

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In this handout photo released by Uzbekistan's Presidential Press Office, Uzbekistan's President Shavkat Mirziyoyev casts his ballot at a polling station during a referendum in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Sunday, April 30, 2023. Voters in Uzbekistan are casting ballots in a referendum on a revised constitution that promises human rights reforms. But the reforms being voted on Sunday also would allow the country's president to stay in office until 2040.(Uzbekistan's Presidential Press Office via AP) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan (AP) — Uzbeks gave overwhelming approval in a referendum to constitutional changes that promise human rights reforms but that also would allow the country’s president to stay in office until 2040, the country's central elections commission said Monday.

More than 90% of those who cast ballots Sunday voted for the measure, which was heavily promoted by the government, according to the commission. Nearly 85% of eligible voters took part, it said.

The changes include lengthening the presidential term from five to seven years, while retaining the existing two-term limit. Although President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is in his second term, the change in term length would allow him to run twice more after his current tenure ends in 2026.

Other changes include abolishing capital punishment and boosting legal protections for citizens, including those accused of crimes.

Under Mirziyoyev’s predecessor, Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan was one of the region’s most repressive countries. Mirziyoyev, who took over after Karimov died in 2016, touts the constitutional changes as showing that Uzbekistan will make freedoms and human rights paramount.

The referendum originally was planned for last year, but was put off in the wake of deadly unrest in the Karakalpakstan region when it was announced that the changes would include rescinding Karakalpakstan’s right to vote on whether to secede.

Although the likelihood of secession is very small, that proposal angered residents of the poor and environmentally beleaguered republic that makes up a third of Uzbekistan’s territory but has only about 5% of the country’s 36 million people. Mass unrest broke out in the Karakalpak capital, Nukus; at least 18 people died in clashes with police.

The new package retains the Karakalpakstan secession right.